Why Huma Abedin Might Get a Better Deal in France

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Huma Abedin

Since the (second) Anthony Weiner scandal broke, there has been an unleashing of intrusive speculation about…his wife, Huma Abedin. “Understanding Huma Abdedin,” “Blaming Huma Abedin,” “Huma Abedin’s Deja Vu Moment” – just a few of the hundreds of headlines all asking, in some form or another, the same question: why, for god’s sake, is Huma Abedin not leaving her husband? As Maggie Haberman writes for Politico, “Abedin has become the focus of media coverage that’s gone, in short order, from sympathetic to savage.”

Chances are, if this same story were unfolding in France, no one would necessarily care much about why Huma Abedin is not leaving her husband. Which might make things a little less trying for her. In France there would probably be less judgment about her reasons for staying in her marriage, unlike the United States, where the Washington Post’s religion columnist cites biblical proverbs condemning Weiner for the “deceit in his heart,” and Abedin for her cupidity, and CNN’s relationship expert asks why she isn’t at her attorney’s office already.

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Anne Sinclair

It’s their problème, would probably be the French view about the sexting (and the resexting), because after all, what couple does not have their problèmes? There is no owner’s manual on how to make the things work. Think of Anne Sinclair, wife of the former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stood by him during both the IMF infidelity scandal when he had an affair with an economist working for him, and the Sofitel scandal that brought him down. Or Danièle Mitterand, the wife of French president Mitterand, who remained married to him while knowing that he had a relationship (and family) with another woman. Or Catherine Millet, a well-known intellectual and writer, famous in the United States for her graphic account of her extra-marital sex life, but less well-known for a subsequent book called Jealousy, about the pain and envy that her husband’s affairs caused her. A book she published while remaining married to him.

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Catherine Millet

In all of these cases there was some speculation about whether the wives might leave; but there was never really any public questioning as to why they would stay. It seemed beside the point, not really relevant to whatever was of public interest in each of the stories (respectively: the credibility of a public official, the credibility of a president, the literary credibility of the book). You could say that ultimately Anne Sinclair did leave her husband or that Catherine Millet reaped the seeds she sowed—but nonetheless there is a sense that no matter what you would do in these situations, you can’t get inside the complex intimacy of a marriage. It is the ultimate unjudgeable institution, because it is the ultimate private institution.

But there is actually one aspect of this story in which French media would probably be just as fierce as the American public opinion—and it is the most intolerable aspect of all in this affair. One of the reasons frequently being cited to explain to a baffled American public why Abedin is staying with Weiner is that she is wildly ambitious and deeply wants to be married to a powerful politician, at any cost. Again, staying in her marriage couldn’t just be a choice she’s made for personal reasons, that’s not (morally) imaginable. But wait, if it’s political—which it must be—then it seems like an even worse choice, because Weiner wasn’t ever particularly illustrious or well-liked as a congressman.

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In her Sunday editorial, Maureen Dowd cites someone “close to” Huma Abedin and the Clintons saying, “Bill Clinton was the greatest political and policy mind of a generation…Anthony (Weiner) is behaving similarly without the chops or résumé.” As though a man with chops and résumé were somehow more entitled to tawdry sex scandals. But that’s exactly what’s echoing throughout much of the media coverage, and it’s not unlike the French media’s rationalization as to why they never particularly covered Strauss-Kahn’s well-known and potentially destructive sexual impulses—he was a brilliant economist, a powerful politician. The greatness made it okay, or at least less reprehensible.

Clinton was a great man. Strauss-Kahn was a great man. Anthony Weiner is not a great man.  So great men get more of a pass on infidelity and sexual crassness than dweebs? And women like Hillary Clinton can be more forgiven than women like Huma Abedin for choosing not to leave?

Makes you almost want to marry a dweeb. Then at least it becomes perfectly clear what to do in the case of infidelity. Just run from the loser!

Why the French Don’t Have a Word for “Dating”

There’s a story that’s been making headlines in the U.S. in recent days about two close friends in New York, Jessica and Timothy, who have decided as an experiment “to date” each other for 40 days. They’ve created a website and post daily updates on their “relationship.” The entire concept of this controlled upgrade from friendship to dating is un-translatable in French, not least because there isn’t really a word for “dating” in France.

What is “dating” for Americans exactly? It’s something that’s not platonic, it’s not friendship, but it’s not marriage or necessarily committed or even monogamous. It’s definitely sexual or has the expectation that it could potentially be sexual. Dating also holds the promise of leading to “more,” whatever that is. But above all, dating is a pretty official status: if you are dating, you are not friends; you are something else.

If a man and a woman are dating, the rules are different than some other form of relationship, the expectations are different – and these rules and expectations are petty formally ritualized within this framework. For example, dating is not friends who hang out and might possibly feel attracted to each other. If you are dating, that possibility of attraction must exist: that’s part of the deal. If it is a date, then all parties involved have tacitly acknowledged the possibility of this attraction and the expectation that it will eventually be acted upon. To know it’s a date is to know that, in the end, we might potentially sleep with each other and that if we don’t, then “dating” won’t have worked out. It will have been, to some extent, a failed experiment. Happily, it’s part of American culture to embrace failure!

“Fail Fast” is a mantra among entrepreneurs. It means that if it becomes clear that a given project isn’t working, the best move is to pull the plug quickly so you don’t lose more time you could have spent on something else. It’s based on minimizing opportunity cost, and it assumes a certain amount of failure as a feature of the system.

                            – Matt Dean, Insidehighered.com

Image 2In this New York experiment, the couple have been friends for years, and as they describe on the fortydaysofdating.com website, “have opposite relationship problems.” Timothy is commitment-phobic and Jessica jumps into relationships too fast. Finding themselves single at the same time, they decided to try dating each other as an experiment, “an attempt to explore and hopefully overcome their fears and inadequacies”—an attempt, presumably, to exorcise these alleged “relationship problems.” Their description of what an upgrade to “dating” entails is, quite literally, “going through the motions of a relationship.” They describe dating as playing out those ritualized rules, and they even define explicit rules, including things like seeing each other every day, going on at least three dates a week, and not having sex or hooking up with anyone else.

The French might wonder how it’s even possible to be friends who decide suddenly “to date.” For the French, all this relationship stuff is more of a continuum, a kind of seamless spectrum of possibility without clear demarcations between the different zones of relations between men and women. Without, if you will, “dating.” What exactly is, the French might ask, “going through the motions of a relationship”? It’s a good question.

One of the received ideas among the French about Americans is the view that they tend to be, as the French say, cash: they pronounce it “keh-shah,” and use it to mean direct and straightforward, or blunt. Something about the term cash feels transactional (obviously), and so does something about this whole 40-days-of-dating experiment (maybe less intentional). It plays perfectly into the caricature that the French might paint of Americans’ relationships, as a little stilted and artificial (“going through the motions”), and their caricature of American culture in general as results-oriented.

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The word “cash,” used in French, means direct or blunt.

Jessica and Timothy are both designers and this experience is also, partly, a design experiment for them, so they are obviously playing things out literally for effect. But the script they’re following is pretty much the classic rulebook of dating. We don’t yet know how the experiment will play out (Jessica and Timothy are only on their 18th day of dating, they nearly ended the experiment on the 15th day, decided to stick with it, and last night they made out), but it already does highlight some of the artifice of the dating custom.

And it also suggests that if the French don’t have a word for “dating,” it’s probably because they probably find it too keh-shah.

Why the French Can’t Help But Be Unhappy


You know all those received ideas people have about France? How the French are really negative (especially unpleasant Parisians), how they’re anti-capitalist and anti-American, how they’re really into l’amour and open relationships, how French women love lingerie, blablabla.

I could go on. But so far those are the four tried-and-true, almost parodically clichéd ideas about France that Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’ celebrity editorialist, has written about in a series of Op-Eds in the past two weeks.

According to her dateline, Dowd is evidently in Paris at the moment, and her pieces have been about—surprise—moroseness, lingerie, anti-capitalist sentiment, and the defiantly unmarried French first lady (this last column was actually a twofer: not only the really-into-open-relationships cliché, but then the mother of all clichés about France: “It is disorienting to watch the French try to be nice.”)

It’s a shame she billed the New York Times for the expense of traveling to France when she could have phoned in the exact same columns from her home office in Washington, just with Google and a couple of hours. In fact, in the first of her France columns, “Goodby Old World, Bonjour Tristesse,” which is about the French being all down—you know, “so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement”—Dowd actually cut, translated and pasted citations from an earlier article in the French newspaper Le Monde about the same topic. (She cites the headline of the story by Anne Chemin, “Liberté, égalité, morosité,” as proof that this is the mood in France now, and uses quotes from a French historian and a French sociologist, citing them “as they told Le Monde”). Pourquoi pas, it was a terrific piece!

Dowd did meet with the designer Christian Lacroix’s dentist. I’m not sure what makes his insight on French affairs relevant, but he certainly did help reinforce her deliriously original premise: “The French people, maybe they think too much.”  In defense of Dowd’s choice to, as the French expression goes, push at an open door, I will offer yet another cliché: that there is some truth in all stereotypes.


A delightful video illustrating clichés about France by Cédric Villain.

And the French-are-morose stereotype has been making a popular comeback lately. A few days after Dowd’s “Bonjour Tristesse” column, another Times editorialist, Roger Cohen, published his (excellent) version of the story, “France’s Glorious Malaise.” Cohen also pulls citations from another story—but it was actually his own, from 16 years ago. A story about…French malaise. “…If moroseness is a perennial state, rather than a reaction to particular circumstance, does it really matter?” he asks tody. He concludes that French gloominess is less a malaise than a natural outlook, a form of realism and “bracing frankness,” a level-headed way of taking things as they come.

It’s an interesting analysis and in any case, Cohen, who was a Paris-based correspondent for years, knows that he has to find something that goes a bit deeper than Dowd’s facile “existential estrangement.” What’s really interesting is that Cohen’s explanation turns French moroseness into something practically…American! French pessimism actually becomes a deeply pragmatic, salt of the earth philosophy. Le français as le existential cowboy! That would also go some way to explaining the French fascination with the American West, and to getting beyond that tired the-French-they-think-too-much cliché.


Lucky Luke, famous French comic book hero, icon of French fascination with the American West.

I love the idea that this alleged French malaise could actually be some kind of shared Franco-American common sense. Undoubtedly it is, but I also think it’s something even more basic. The very reason that French unhappiness is intriguing (especially to happy Americans) is because, when you experience France, it’s hard not to be struck by just how good they have it. Sheer beauty, free healthcare, really good bread, global status, cheap world-class education, lots of paid vacation, generous social security, subsidized culture, free childcare…I could go on here, too.

Well guess what? The French agree. But having it good is not something to be happy about! Don’t you see? The French have it so good, and have it had it so good, comparatively, for so long, that they can’t bear the thought of it ever being any different. And yet they can’t imagine it being anything but less good as time passes, and of course they’re right—after all, as we know, they are realists.

The French love France, their lives, their benefits, they love it so much it makes them deeply unhappy. It sort of makes sense; have you ever seen a happy cowboy?

“Partners Do Not Spy on Each Other”

Top Secret Spy Letterpress Wedding Invitation

Nothing tests a relationship more than…spying.

Things between France and the United States were already a little tense lately. In free-trade talks that took place between the U.S. and Europe a few weeks ago, France had insisted on excluding its culture industry. It prompted collective eyeball-rolling, and not just in the US delegation—many European countries were also opposed to the idea that France should be able to carve out its own unique little clause of exceptionalism. But (as always) the real confrontation was with the United States, since the real motive of the clause was to protect the French market from too many American blockbusters.

France won that confrontation with the U.S.—or, at least, won the right to preserve a French exception. It’s the U.S. that actually came out with the upper hand. As has often been the case with French economic and trade policy, it makes for bad PR. Imposing that kind of non-negotiable condition, threatening to veto any agreement if France wasn’t given a guarantee, is hardly fair-play in the relationship handbook. It’s my way or no way, is not a great way to start off “talks”, and although the reasons for the exception are certainly defendable (and some big Hollywood players even defended them), it reinforced France’s image as too-often protectionist, with an over-developed sense of its cultural entitlement. It was hard to find much political support for the tactic and overall it wasn’t great diplomacy.

And then it turns out the United States has been spying on France. Which is really bad diplomacy. At best, it’s terribly poor form, at worst, it’s a diplomatic incident that could actually threaten to derail the ongoing trans-atlantic free-trade talks. Either way, in the Franco-American couple, suddenly France has the upper hand again! “Partners do not spy on each other,” said Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner–that’s a pretty basic rule in the relationship handbook, too. President Hollande has had quite sharp words as well, demanding an explanation, and this time no one’s questioning France’s entitlement.

The French far left has been prompt–as always!–to respond to what looks to them like yet another American abuse of power, by suggesting that France go even further than outrage. The Green Party called on Mr. Hollande to grant the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, political asylum, saying that “it would allow France to remind the world that it intends to protect every whistleblower, regardless of his or her nationality.” Which, unpacked, actually means the following: “It would allow France to remind those arrogant, boorish Americans that despite their economic weight and their so-called special security concerns that allegedly justify all sorts of offensive measures, France isn’t going to take it lying down! France takes particular pride in human rights, which – don’t forget! – were created in France.” Or something like that.

The American defense so far has been to imply that, well, everybody spies. It’s just that the U.S. got busted (and that the scale of the spying is monumental). It’s like someone suddenly saying out loud what it looks like the United States has been thinking to itself all along: that we trust our friends, but not as much as we trust what we overhear our friends saying. Not what you want to hear from a partner. The National Security Agency can cite all sorts of terrorism and security concerns, but what this all uncomfortably looks like is an American sense of exceptionalism. An entitlement to do things our way, to take care of business however it needs to be taken care of, to assume that our security interests take precendence over pretty much anyone else’s rights.

“It’s an act of indescribable hostility!” raged the Fench Justice Minister, Christine Taubira. “This scandal reveals that even five years after the departure of Bush, America still poses as the supreme leader of the world,” denounced a conservative French lawmaker. Arrogant, heavy-handed, offensive, not to mention illegal: this spying affair has reinforced the United States’ reputation for self-righteousness and its own sense of entitlement. The French may be unreasonably protectionist, but the Americans are unbelievably presumptuous.

And when it comes to negotiating, what’s protecting a few hundred low-budget French movies compared to…stealing hundreds of millions of pieces of private data?